With Moore At Corunna by G. A. Henty
Chapter XVII. An Escape
During his visit to the other side of the river Terence had seen, with great satisfaction, that a powerful battery, mounting fifty guns, had been erected on the heights of Villa Nova, and its fire, he thought, should effectually bar any attempt of the French to cross the bridge.
It would indeed be madness for them to attempt such an operation, as the boats supporting the bridge could be instantly sunk by the concentrated fire of the battery. He said nothing of this on his return to camp, as it might have given rise to fresh agitation among the men, were they to be aware that their presence was not really required for the defence of the bridge. After a short stay in camp he again went down into the town, with the idea that he was more likely to hit upon some plan of action there than he would be in the camp.
The two men again went with him. Another prolonged stare at the convent failed to inspire him with any scheme that was in the slightest degree practicable. He fell back upon the conclusion he had mentioned to the two troopers, that the only chance would be to take advantage of the wild confusion that would prevail upon the entry of the French. The difficulty that presented itself to him was, that the nuns would be so appalled by the approach of the French that it would be unlikely that they would think of leaving the protection--such as it was--of the convent, and would shrink from encountering the wild turmoil in the streets. Even if they did so, it would be too late for them to have any chance of getting across the bridge, which would be thronged to a point of suffocation by the mob of fugitives, and might readily be destroyed by one or two of the boats being sunk by the French artillery.
The one thing evident was, that he must arrange to get a boat and to station it at the end of some street going down to the river from the neighbourhood of the convent. That part of the city being some distance from the bridge, the streets would soon be deserted, and there would not be a wild rush of fugitives to the boat, which would be the case were it to be lying alongside anywhere near the bridge. Upon the other hand, it would be less likely that the nuns would leave the convent if all was comparatively quiet in that neighbourhood, and did they do so it would be difficult in the extreme to carry off his cousin from their midst, ignorant, too, as he was of her appearance. After looking for some time at the convent, he returned to the more busy part of the town. Presently he heard a great shouting; every window opened, and he saw a crowd coming along the street. By the candles, banners, crucifixes, and canopies it was evident that it was a religious procession. He was about to turn off into a side street when the thought struck him that possibly it was the bishop himself on his way up to the camp; therefore he remained in his place, doffed his hat, and, like all around him, went down on one knee.
The procession was a long and stately one, and in the midst, walking beneath a canopy, came the bishop himself. Terence gazed at him fixedly in order to impress on his mind the features of the man whose ambition had cost Portugal so dearly, and at whose instigation so much blood of the most honest and capable men of the province had been shed. The face fully justified the idea that he had formed of the man. The bishop was of commanding presence, and walked with the air of one who was accustomed to see all bow before him; but on the other hand, the face bore traces of his violent character. There was a set smile on his lips, but his brow was heavy and frowning, while his receding chin contradicted the strength of the upper part of his face. There was, too, a look of anxiety and restlessness betrayed by a nervous twitching of the lips.
"The scoundrel is a coward," Terence said to himself. "He may profess absolute confidence, but I don't think he feels it, and I will bet odds that he won't be in the front when the time for fighting comes."
Terence walked away after the procession had passed.
"If one could get hold of the bishop," he said to himself, "one might get an order on the superior of the convent to hand over Mary O'Connor to the bearer, but I don't see how that can possibly be managed. Of course, he is surrounded by priests and officials all day, and his palace will be guarded by any number of soldiers, for he must have many enemies. There must be scores of relatives of men who have been killed by his orders, who would assassinate him, bishop though he is, had they the chance. And even if I got an order--and it seems to me impossible to do so--it would not be made out in the name of Mary O'Connor. I know that they change their names when they go into nunneries, and she may be Sister Angela or Cecilia, or anything else, and I should not know in the slightest degree whether the name he put down was the one that she really goes by. No, that idea is out of the question."
Returning to the camp, he held counsel with Herrara. The latter, he knew, had none of the bigotry so general among his countrymen. He had before told him about his cousin being shut up against her will, and of the letter that she had thrown out, but had hitherto said nothing of his intention to bring about her escape if possible.
"I had an idea that that was what was in your mind when you went off so early this morning, O'Connor. I have a high respect for the Church, but I have no respect for its abuses. And the shutting up of a young lady, and forcing her to take the veil in order to rob her of her property, is as hateful to me as it can be to you, so that I should have no hesitation in aiding you in your endeavour to bring about her escape. Have you formed any plan?"
"No; I have thought it over again and again, but cannot think of any scheme."
"If that is the case, O'Connor, I fear that it is useless for me to try to do so; you are so full of ideas always, that if you cannot see your way out of the difficulty, it is hopeless to expect that I could do so. If you can contrive any plan I will promise to aid you in any way you can point out, but as to inventing one, I should never do so if I racked my brain ever so much."
"There must be some way," Terence said. "I used to get into all sorts of scrapes when I was a boy, but found there was always some way out of them, if one could but hit upon it. The only thing that I can think of, is to carry her off in the confusion when the French enter the town."
"I should say that the nuns would never think of leaving their convent, O'Connor; it is their best hope of safety to remain there."
"No doubt it is, but the French don't always respect the convents--very much the contrary, indeed. No, I don't think that they would go out merely to rush into the street; but they might go out if they thought they could get over the bridge before the French arrived."
"They might do that, certainly; indeed, it would be the best thing they could do."
"Do you think that if one were to dress up as a priest, or as one of the bishop's attendants, and to go as from him with an order to the lady superior to take the nuns at once across the bridge to the convent on the other side, she would obey it?"
"Not without some written order," Herrara said. "The bishop would naturally send someone who would be known to her, or if he did send a stranger he would give him a letter or some token she would recognize; otherwise, she could not know that it was his order."
"That is what I was afraid of, Herrara, but it is what I shall try, if I can see no other way. Indeed, I see only one chance of getting over the difficulty. The bishop is a tyrant of the worst kind. Now, as far as I can remember, tyrants of his sort--that is to say, tyrants who rule by working on the passions of the mob--are always cowards. I watched the bishop closely when I saw him to-day, and I am convinced he is one also. Even in that kneeling crowd he could not conceal it. There was a nervous twitching about his lips which, to my mind, showed that he was in a state of intense anxiety, and that under all his swagger and show of confidence he was, nevertheless, in a horrible state of alarm. That being so, it seems to me extremely likely that when the fighting begins he will make a bolt of it. He won't wait for the French to enter, for he would know well enough that in their fury at their defeat, the fugitives, if they came upon him, would be likely to tear him limb from limb, just as they have murdered dozens of infinitely better men; so I think that he will make off beforehand. I imagine that he will go secretly, and with only two or three attendants."
"But you could never carry him off without an alarm being raised, if that is what you are thinking of, O' Connor."
"No, I am not thinking of that; but if I could, say with Bull and Macwitty, suddenly attack him like three robbers, we might carry off something that would serve as a sort of passport to the lady abbess. For instance, he had a tremendously big ring on. I noticed it as he held up his hands, as if on purpose to show it off."
"That was his episcopal ring," Herrara laughed. "Yes, if you could get hold of that, it would be a key that would open the door of any convent."
"Do you think she would hand my cousin over to me if I showed it to her and gave her a message as from the bishop?"
"Yes, if you knew the name. You see, from the day she was made a nun she lost her former name altogether; and certainly the bishop would send for her under her convent name."
"That is what I was thinking myself. Then I must get them all out."
"You have got to get the ring first," Herrara said with a smile.
"Yes, yes, I mean if I get it."
"But if the French have entered the town you can never get them across the bridge."
"No, I know that. I mean to get a boat and have it lying off the end of some quiet street. I could put a couple of our men into that, for they would only regard it, when I had got her on board, as an effort on my part to save one of the nuns from the French. One thing to do would be to get the robe of a priest, or the dress of one of the bishop's officials."
Herrara thought for some time. "I think that I could do that for you, O'Connor. Of course I have a good many acquaintances in Oporto, among them some ladies. I was intending to go across this evening and see some of them, and implore them to leave the town before it is too late. One of these friends of mine might buy some robes for me; a woman can do that sort of thing when a man cannot. She can pretend that she wants to buy the robe as a present for the parish priest, or her father confessor, or something of that sort. At any rate, it is worth trying."
"It is, indeed, Herrara, and if you could manage it I should be greatly obliged to you."
"I will go across at once. I expect Soult will be close up to-morrow morning, or at any rate the next day. It may be another couple of days before he gets his whole force concentrated, but in four days anyhow his shot will be rattling down into the town. I will go and see what I can do. You had better get one of my troopers to get the boat for you."
Herrara did not return until early on the following morning.
"I have managed it," he said, as Terence, who was getting very anxious about him, ran forward to meet him.
"There is one family in Oporto whose eldest son is a brother officer of mine, and I have visited them here with him, and have met them several times at Lisbon. Indeed, I may tell you frankly that had it not been for the troubles, his sister would, ere this time, have been affianced to me. I had hoped that they had left the town before this, but they told me that any movement of that sort might bring disaster on them. Two of her brothers are in the army, and the bishop could not, therefore, pretend that the father was a traitor to the country; being an elderly man, the latter has in fact held aloof altogether from politics; but he is certainly not of the bishop's party, and the bishop considers that all who are not with him are against him. Had they attempted to leave the town there is no doubt he would have made it a pretext for arresting the father, and would certainly do so on the first opportunity. However, they quite believed that the great force that there is here would be sufficient to defend the fortifications, and were completely taken aback when I told them that I was absolutely convinced that the place would fall at the first attack of the French.
"They agreed to make all preparations for leaving at once. Their horses have been seized, nominally that they should be used on the fortifications, but really, I have no doubt, to prevent their leaving. Of course I told them all about what we had been doing, in which they were intensely interested. For aught they know, their house may be watched; so they will come out in some of their servants' clothes. I told them that they must leave on the night before Soult made his attack. Of course he will summon the town, and the bishop will, of course, refuse to surrender, and you may be sure the French will attack on the following day. They left me alone with Lorenza for a time, and I took that opportunity of telling her about your plan, and what you wanted, and she promised to procure you the dress of an ecclesiastic to-morrow. I told her that you were about my size and height.
"She knew your cousin personally, and was very fond of her, and therefore entered all the more readily into our plans to get her out. She said that she disappeared suddenly some months ago, and that her mother had given out that she had been suddenly seized with the determination to enter a convent, much against her own wishes. Lorenza felt sure that this was not true, for she knew that your cousin had heard from her father much about the Reformed religion, and was in her heart disposed that way. The mother is engaged to be married to a nobleman who is one of the bishop's warmest supporters, and the general idea was that Mary O'Connor had been forced into a nunnery against her will. I sat talking with them until late last night, and they would not hear of my leaving, especially as they said that the town was full of bands of ruffians, who traversed the streets, attacking and robbing anyone of respectable appearance. As I had rather a fancy to try what a comfortable bed was like again, I did not need much pressing."
"Thank you greatly, Herrara, I am indeed obliged to you; things seem to look really hopeful. I have arranged with Bull and Macwitty that on the evening before the attack is likely to take place we will watch all night at this end of the bridge. The bishop won't leave until the last thing, but I would wager any money he will do so that night. He won't go farther than Villa Nova, so as to be ready to cross again at once if the news comes that the French have been beaten off. No doubt he will make the excuse that as an ecclesiastic he could take no active part in the defence, but had been engaged in prayer, which had done more towards gaining the victory than his presence could possibly have done."
"I should not be surprised if that should be his course," Herrara said, smiling. "At any rate, for your sake I hope that it will be. Have you seen about a boat?"
"Yes, I spoke to Francesco Nortis yesterday evening, and told him that I wanted to hire a boat with two boatmen for the next week. They were to be at his service night and day. He was to tell them that he would not want it for fishing, but that, in case, by any possibility, the French took the town, he should be able to go across and bring some friends over. When I told him that money was no object, he said that there would be no difficulty about it. They will be glad enough to get a good week's pay and next to nothing to do for it."
Two days passed quietly. On the first day the news arrived that Silveira had invested Chaves on the day of the battle of Braga, and had forced the garrison, which consisted of but a hundred fighting men, with twelve hundred sick, to capitulate.
Day after day news came of the advance of the French. They had moved in three columns. Each had met with a stout resistance, but had carried the passes and bridges after severe loss. One of the columns had been held for some time in check at the Ponte D'Ave, but had carried it at last, whereupon the Portuguese had murdered their general and dispersed.
On the 26th, six days after the battle of Braga, Franceschi's cavalry were seen approaching the position in front of Oporto. The alarm bells rung, the troops hurried to their positions, but the day passed off quietly, the confidence of the people being still further raised by the arrival of 2,000 regular troops sent by Beresford to their assistance. As there were already seven or eight thousand regular troops in the camp, it seemed to all that as Soult had but 20,000 men fit for action, the defences ought to be held against him for any length of time. The majority, indeed, believed that he would not even venture to attack the town when upon his arrival he perceived its strength, especially when they knew that he had but a few guns with him, his park of artillery being still at Tuy, which was closely invested by the Spaniards.
On the following day the whole French army settled down in front of the Portuguese works, and a wild and purposeless fire was now opened by the defenders, although the French were far beyond musket-range.
Soult sent in a message to the bishop urging him to surrender. He assured him that resistance was hopeless, and that it was his earnest desire to save so great a city from the horrors of a storm. The message was sent by a prisoner, who was seized by the mob in spite of the flag of truce that he carried, and would have been murdered had he not assured the people that he came with a message from Soult, to the effect that, seeing the hopelessness of attacking the town or of marching back to the frontier in safety, he wished to negotiate for a surrender for himself and his army.
At one point the Portuguese displayed a white flag, and shouted that they wished to surrender. A French general advanced with another officer, but when they reached the lines the Portuguese fell upon him, killed his companion, and carried the general a prisoner into the town. The negotiations were prolonged until evening, but the bishop declined all Soult's overtures, and the fire from the intrenchments continued. In the course of the evening Merle's division, in order to divert attention from the points Soult had fixed upon for the attack, moved towards the Portuguese left, when a tremendous fire of artillery and musketry opened upon it. The division made its way forward, and occupied some hollow ground which shielded it from fire, within a very short distance of the intrenchments. Feeling that the crisis was at hand, Terence had everything prepared. The boatmen were told that they might be required that night, and that they were to have the boat in readiness to start at any moment. Herrara had warned his friends, and went to their house with six of his men, as soon as it became dusk, to escort them over. Terence with his two troopers, clad in the dresses of two of the tallest of the men and wrapped in cloaks, with their broad hats pressed low down upon their foreheads, went down to the end of the bridge as soon as it became quite dark. The river was three hundred yards broad, but the sound of the confusion and alarm that prevailed in the city could be plainly heard, although the evening had set in rough and tempestuous. The shouts of the excited mob mingled with the clanging of the church bells.
"That does not sound like confidence in victory," Terence remarked.
"Quite the other way, sir. I should say that after all their bragging every man in the place is in a blue funk."
A great many people, especially women with children, were making their way across the bridge. About nine o'clock a little knot of five or six men, following a tall figure, passed them.
"That is the bishop," Terence whispered, and in pursuance of the orders that he had previously given them, the two men followed him as he fell in at a short distance behind the group. These turned off from the main road and took one that led up to the Serra Convent, standing on the crest of a rugged hill. As soon as they had passed beyond the houses at the foot of the hill, and the road was altogether deserted, Terence said to the men:
"Now is our time. Do you take the attendants; I will manage the bishop."
They moved forward quickly and silently until they were close to the group, then they dashed forward. As the startled attendants turned round the troopers fell upon them, and with heavy blows from their fists knocked them to the ground like nine-pins. The bishop turned round and shouted:
"Villains, I am the bishop!"
"I know that!" Terence exclaimed, and sprang at him.
The prelate reeled and fell. Terence threw himself upon him, and seizing his hand wrested from it the episcopal ring. Then, upon seeing that the bishop had fainted, probably from fright, Terence leapt to his feet. The five attendants were lying on the ground.
"All right, lads," he said, "we have got what we wanted, but just strip off one of these fellows' clothes. Take this one, he is a priest."
It took but a minute for the two troopers to strip off the garment and pick up the three-cornered hat.
"Now, come along, men."
They reached the houses again without hearing so much as a cry from the astounded Portuguese, who as yet had but a vague idea of what had happened to them. The capture of the clothes had been rendered necessary by Herrara's report, two days before, that the young lady had failed to get the clothes, for the shopman had asked so many questions concerning them that she had said carelessly that it made no matter. She had intended to give them as a present and a surprise, but as there seemed a difficulty about it she would give money instead, and let the priest choose his own clothes. She had purposely entered a shop in the opposite end of the town from that in which her father lived, so that there would be less chance of her being recognized.
Herrara said that she would try elsewhere, but Terence at once begged him to tell her not to do so.
"The bishop is sure to have some of his priests with him," he said, "and if I rob him of his ring, I might just as well rob one of them of his clothes."
On returning to the camp Terence found that his comrade had already arrived with a gentleman and three ladies. The tent had been given up for the use of the latter. Herrara had warned him not to say a word to the old gentleman of his adventure.
"He and the others know nothing about it," he said, "and it is just as well that they shouldn't, for he is somewhat rigid in his notions, and might be rather horrified at your assaulting a bishop, however great a scoundrel he might be, and would be specially so at the borrowing of his ring."
At twelve o'clock heavy peals of thunder were heard, followed by a tremendous outbreak of firing from the intrenchments, two hundred guns and a terrific musketry fire opening suddenly.
"The French are attacking!" Herrara exclaimed.
"I don't think so," Terence replied. "It is more likely to be a false alarm. The troops may have thought that the thunder was the roar of French guns. Soult would hardly make an attack at night, or, not knowing the nature of the ground behind the intrenchments, his men would be falling into confusion, and perhaps fire into each other."
As, after a quarter of an hour of prodigious din, the fire slackened and presently ceased altogether, it was evident that this supposition was a correct one. The morning broke bright and still, and an hour later the cannonade began again. Terence at once, after telling Herrara to form the troops up and march them down to the end of the bridge, left the camp, and after proceeding a short distance took off his uniform and donned the attire of the ecclesiastic, and then hurried down into the town. He was accompanied by the two troopers in their peasant dress. These left him at the bridge. The din was now tremendous, every church bell was ringing furiously, and frightened women were already crowding down towards the bridge.
Their point of crossing had already been decided upon--it was at the end of a street close to the convent, and when Terence reached the convent the two men were already standing at the end of the street, awaiting him.
"Now, you do your part of the business and I will do mine," Terence said, and he moved forward to the door of the convent, where he would be unseen should anyone look out.
The two troopers went to the middle of the street, opposite the window which the officer had described to Terence, and both shouted in a stentorian voice:
The shout was heard above the tumult of the battle and the din in the city, and a head appeared at the window and looked down with a bewildered expression.
"Mary O'Connor," Bull shouted again, "a friend is here to rescue you. You will leave the convent directly with the rest. Look out for us."
Then they walked on, and passed Terence.
"Have you seen her face?"
"We have, sir. We shall know her again, never fear."
Terence now seized the bell and rung it vigorously. The door opened, and a terrified face appeared at the window.
"I have a message from the bishop to the lady superior."
The door was opened, and was at once closed and barred behind him. He was led along some passages to the room where the lady superior, pale and agitated, was awaiting him.
"Have the French entered the intrenchments?" she asked.
"I trust they have not entered yet, but they may do so at any moment. The bishop is at the Serra Convent, and from there has a view over the town to the intrenchments. He begs you to instantly bring the nuns across, for they will be in safety there, whereas no one can say what may happen in the town. Here is his episcopal ring in proof that I am the bearer of his orders I pray you to hasten, sister, for a crowd of fugitives are already pouring over the bridge, and there is not a moment to be lost."
"The nuns are just coming down to prayer in the chapel, and we will start instantly."
In two minutes upward of a hundred frightened women were gathered in the courtyard.
"Are all here?" Terence asked the lady superior.
"All of them."
"I asked because I know that he is specially anxious that one, who is a sort of prisoner, should not fall into the hands of the French, as that might cause serious trouble."
"I know whom you mean," and she called out "Sister Theresa!" There was no answer.
"It is well you asked," she said. "They have forgotten her." She gave orders to one of the sisters, who at once entered the house, and returned in a minute with a young nun. The door was now opened, and they moved out in procession. Terence could hear regular volleys amidst the roar of guns and the incessant crack of muskets.
"I fear that they have entered the intrenchments," he said. "Hasten, sister, or we shall be too late."
With hurried steps they passed along the deserted streets. As they neared the bridge a crowd of fugitives were hastening in that direction, and when they approached its head they found it blocked by a struggling mass.
"What is to be done?" the lady superior asked in consternation.
"We must wait a minute or two; they may clear off."
But every second the crowd increased, and was soon thick behind them. Already the line of nuns was broken up by the pressure. Terence had kept his eyes on the two tall figures who had followed, at first behind them, and had then quickened their footsteps until abreast of the centre of the line, and to his satisfaction saw that they had one of the nuns between them, and were forcing their way with her through the crowd behind. At this moment a terrible cry arose from the crowd. A troop of Portuguese dragoons rode furiously down the street leading to the bridge, and dashed into the crowd, trampling down all in their way in their reckless terror, until they gained the end of the bridge. As they rode on to it, two of the boats, already low in the water from the weight upon them, gave a surge and sank, carrying with them hundreds of people. The crowd recoiled with a cry of horror.
"There is no escape now, sister," Terence said; "go back to the convent."
"Home, sisters!" she cried in a loud, shrill voice, that made itself heard even over the screams of the drowning people and the wails and cries of the mob.
Terence placed himself before the lady superior, and by main force made a way through the crowd; which was the more easy as, seeing their only escape cut off, numbers were now beginning to disperse to their homes. The movement was converted into a wild rush when a troop of French cavalry came thundering down to the bridge. In a moment all was mad confusion and fright. The nuns followed their superior, and all thought of decorum being now lost, fled with her like a flock of frightened sheep along the street leading to the convent. Terence paused a moment. He saw that the French troopers threw themselves from their horses, and, all animosity being for the moment forgotten in the horror of the scene, set to work to endeavour to save the drowning wretches, regardless of the fire which, as soon as the French appeared, was opened by the battery on the height of Villa Nova.
Then he sped away after the nuns, whom he soon passed. He turned down the street next to the convent, and, on reaching the end, saw the two troopers with a nun in a boat ten yards away. Macwitty was standing covering the two boatmen with his pistols.
"Row back to the shore again," he roared out in English, "and take off that gentleman there." The men did not understand his words, but they understood his gestures, and a stroke or two took them alongside. Terence leapt in and told the men to row across the river.
"This is an unexpected meeting, cousin," he said to the girl.
"They have been telling me who you are, and how you have effected my rescue," she said, bursting into tears. "How can I thank you?"
"Well, this is hardly a time for thanks," he said, "and I am as glad as you are that it has all turned out well. I will tell you all about it as soon as we are across."
They were nearly over when he exclaimed to the troopers:
"The French have repaired the bridge with planks. See, they are crossing!"
They sprang out on reaching the opposite shore. A moment later a rattle of musketry broke out.
"Macwitty," he said, "I will give this young lady into your charge. Take her straight up to the camp. There are three ladies there," he said to his cousin, "and in the tent they have some clothes for you to change into. It will not be long before I shall rejoin you. But I must join my regiment now; they are engaged with the enemy."
As he hurried along with Bull, he could hear above the sound of the musketry the sharp crack of the field-guns from the opposite side of the river.
"They are covering the passage, Bull."
As he came up he found that Herrara had taken possession of the houses near the end of the bridge. A part of his troops filled the windows, while the main body lined the quay. The French were recoiling, but a mass of their troops could be seen at the further end of the bridge, and two field batteries were keeping up an incessant fire. Herrara was posted with a company at the end of the bridge.
"We had better fall back, Herrara, before they form a fresh column of attack. We might repulse them again, but they will be able to cross by boats elsewhere, and we shall be taken in front and rear. Let us draw off in good order. The infantry will be sure to march straight against the battery on the hill behind, and it will be half an hour before the cavalry can cross, and by that time we shall be well on our way; whereas, if we stop here until we are taken in flank and rear, we shall be cut to pieces."
"I quite agree with you," Herrara said, and ordered the man with the horn standing beside him to sound the retreat.
The men near at once formed up and got in motion, those in the houses poured out, and in two minutes the whole force were going up the hill at a trot, but still preserving their order. Five minutes later the head of the French column poured over the bridge. Just as the troops reached the place of encampment the fire of the battery ceased suddenly.